A former nurse who became a high profile hospital trust chief executive has been given a 16 month suspended jail term, after she had pleaded guilty to fraudulently paying her husband more than £11,000.
Paula Vasco-Knight, formerly chief executive of South Devon NHS Foundation Trust and the national lead for equalities and diversity for NHS England, was sentenced at Exeter Crown Court on Friday.
Her husband Stephen had also pleaded guilty to fraud and was given a 10 month suspended sentence. Both jail terms are suspended for two years.
Ms Vasco-Knight was ordered to carry out 250 hours of unpaid work and her husband to carry out 150 hours. They will face Proceeds of Crime Act hearings at a later date.
In December 2012, Ms Vasco-Knight was awarded a £10,000 bursary for leadership development. In November 2013, she submitted an invoice to the NHS for £11,072, from the bursary funds, to produce a leadership improvement document called Transform.
Ms Vasco-Knight then authorised the trust to pay her husband’s company Thinking Caps for the document, which was never produced.
“It is something she bitterly regrets and will regret for the rest of her life”
She was legally bound to declare her interest in her husband’s company as part of the NHS’s standing financial instructions, but failed to do so.
The couple had initially pleaded not guilty to charges, but changed their pleas after the trial began in January. Sentencing was adjourned until today.
Passing sentence, the judge told Ms Vasco-Knight: “One cannot imagine a more serious abuse of trust and responsibility than your part.
“You were on a six figure salary and you arranged for your husband to benefit from a contract of £11,000, money from an NHS budget we all know is under severe pressure for resources.
“[You] have fallen a long way from what was expected of you professionally and personally and that is your own fault.”
Lloyd Morgan, defending Ms Vasco-Knight, said: “She has risen a long way from humble beginnings, overcome many difficulties, both professionally and personally, to reach dizzying heights – more than she would ever have expected – and this is a fall of very great magnitude.
“She fraudulently and dishonestly went ahead and arranged the payment of this invoice and it is something she bitterly regrets and will regret for the rest of her life.”
Mr Morgan said Ms Vasco-Knight, who was currently unemployed and signed off sick with mental health problems, had lost her career.
He added: “It is her own fault. It has all gone up in smoke and something to which she will never be able to return. It is difficult to imagine a more dramatic fall from grace than this.”
Ms Vasco-Knight joined the NHS as a “pupil nurse” in the 1980s, before going on to train as a registered nurse and becoming an accident and emergency sister.
She subsequently became director of nursing at Plymouth Hospitals NHS Trust, going on to also become its deputy chief executive and ultimately be appointed chief executive.
In 2008 she moved to South Devon NHS Trust, now Torbay and South Devon NHS Foundation Trust, as chief executive.
Ms Vasco-Knight was awarded a CBE in the 2014 New Year honours list for services to the NHS. But claims of “nepotism” emerged early in the same year involving two whistleblowers.
In May 2014, she stepped down from her role at South Devon Healthcare, several months after she was suspended in the wake of an employment tribunal judgement.
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Ms Vasco-Knight was also NHS England’s national lead for equality from July 2012 until February 2014, when it was announced that her “part-time secondment” to the role had ended.
Then, in May last year, she was suspended as acting chief executive of St George’s University Hospitals NHS Trust in London over “financial allegations” related to a previous employer.